Kildare have used league to rid themselves of bad old habits
Cian O’Neill’s side have got a little better dealing with leads as they face Galway
Kevin Feely has been a revelation for Kildare in the league this year and looks like he could carry the county’s midfield for years to come. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho
When a hopeful long punt from Cork’s Luke Connolly dropped into the Kildare net on February 12th, you could all but hear Pavlov’s bell ring through the stand and terraces of St Conleth’s Park. Not 60 seconds earlier, Ben McCormack had fluffed a chance to kill the game dead but his miss and Connolly’s fluke set off a familiar reflex among the Kildare faithful. Here they went again.
Just three weeks previously, they’d been well on top in the O’Byrne Cup final only to watch Dublin’s third-string ease past them unhurried and criminally untouched. In 2016, the occasional burst of promise in Cian O’Neill’s first championship as Kildare manager had been similarly undermined by rat-a-tat scoring blitzes from Westmeath and Mayo. If it was only that they were getting beaten, that would be something. But this was classic it’s-the-hope-that-kills-you stuff. Kildare to the max.
O’Neill himself made no attempt to shy from it as their key weakness. Against Meath the previous week, they’d been well on top, 2-7 to 0-3 ahead as half-time approached. But in 13 minutes either side of the break, they were outscored by 0-6 to 0-1 to allow Andy McEntee’s side a sniff. Although they had enough in hand to see it out, O’Neill wasn’t about to declare the problem solved.
Barrage of scores
“What happened [against Dublin] happened in the Leinster semi-final last year as well,” he said afterwards. “It happened in for nine minutes of madness in Castlebar too. That’s the issue. It’s where you’re doing well and you’re competitive and you should be pushing on and then, boom. And it’s not just one score, it’s a barrage of scores in a short period of time.
“It’s certainly not physical. It’s psychological. But for me it’s psychological in terms of concentration, not self-doubt or self-efficacy. I just think that a lot of the times we’ve let things in, it’s been crucial errors that cost us. And listen, that can’t be bad luck either that we’re the only one team in the country that makes all these errors. But it’s how we respond to them that’s the issue.”
Win or lose against Galway tomorrow, the issue has certainly been addressed – although solving it will probably always be a ways off. In the Cork game, Connolly’s goal was followed almost immediately by a Barry O’Driscoll point and in the space of six minutes, a seven-point lead was down to two with 15 minutes to go.
But Kildare closed it out from there like it was second nature. Neil Flynn kicked three points on the spin and Cork didn’t register another score until stoppage time when it was all too late. Kildare had survived their sticky patch and won the rest of the game by 0-5 to 0-1.
It wasn’t a one-off either. In five of Kildare’s seven league games, the pattern of opening up a decent lead, coughing some or all of it up before rallying to kick for home was repeated. Against Cork, Derry, Fermanagh and Clare, they gave up comfortable leads by conceding scoring bursts of, respectively, 1-2, 0-7, 0-4 and 1-3 without reply. Including the 0-6 to 0-1 sequence against Meath, the longest any of these spells lasted was 13 minutes.
But, and this is the important bit, the only one of those games they lost was against Derry. And even then, they’d battled back to lead in injury-time only to be beaten by a sucker punch goal at the death. Consistently and repeatedly, they’ve shed the coat we’re used to seeing them in. It was an obvious place to start but that doesn’t mean it was inevitable that they’d achieve it.
Kildare have been a model of consistency through the league, in fact. Before he made 15 changes for last Sunday’s game in Galway, O’Neill stuck with almost exactly the same side in each game when he could. Ten players started each of the first six games and but for injury at various times, it’s a fair bet that Niall Kelly, Paul Cribbin, Daniel Flynn, Neil Flynn and Ben McCormack would have done likewise.
Kelly and Cribbin have been go-to players throughout the league, drivers of the engine room along with Eoin Doyle, Tommy Moolick and Kevin Feely. Feely in particular has been a revelation, his prowess in the air and athleticism giving him the look of a player who could carry the Kildare midfield for years to come. He even took over free-taking duties when Neil Flynn got injured and arguably improved on the original. O’Neill has the core of a promising team on his hands, no question.
Still, Kildare are Kildare are Kildare. If they kick a few points clear early in the second half tomorrow, the nerves of their long-suffering followers will still be jingling and jangling. For the first time in a long time though, they won’t feel quite so resigned to their fate.